Monkey Abroad

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Why can't Thai people speak English?

Why Can’t Thai People Speak English?

| 17 Comments

It’s pretty funny when Thais try to speak English. The language barrier is massive. It’s not like the simple English-to-Spanish language barrier, where you just add an ‘a’ to guitar and you’ve got guitara. No, it’s much deeper than that. And when a brave Thai soul tries to cross the language moat that divides us, it begs the question: Why can’t Thai people speak English?

All Thai people trying to speak English face the same road blocks. There’s no audible difference between R’s and L’s. Rabbit is pronounced, Labbit. Leader is pronounced, Reader. The words ‘flute’ and ‘fruit’ sound the exact same to Thai people.

The letter V has a W sound. There’s no TH sound in their language. My father is so important’ is comically skewed to My fodder is sooo impotent! Most Thai people are eager to learn English, but the challenge is immense. The two languages have incredibly different vowel and consonant sounds.

Thai people are generally better at writing English than they are speaking it. Still, even the most proficient English-writing Thai person can produce some funny Thai signs.

Speaking in Tones

Thai is spoken with intonation, and it’s practically impossible to hear if you’re an English speaker. It sounds like Thais are singing during their everyday conversations. In the middle of a sentence, they’ll suddenly raise their voice in the same way an English-speaker does when asking a question. Then they’ll drastically lower their voice midway through the next word, sounding almost like they’re pissed off.

When an English-speaker tries to speak Thai, it’s like a tone-deaf person belting out a song that everyone else around them sings beautifully.

 

Thais ride in a truck

Photo courtesy of my friend Hamilton Graziano.

 

Thai people crack up at my futile attempts to converse in their mother tongue.  I’ll say, ‘Khun suwai’ to a Thai lady, which means ‘You’re beautiful.’ I didn’t realize that ‘Khun suwai’ also translates to ‘Bad luck to you’ if spoken with the wrong intonation.

I was wishing bad luck on little old Thai ladies without realizing it! All because I can’t understand the many tones in the Thai language. Most Thais on the receiving end of my gestures understand my intention and laugh. Others give me a wide-eyed glare. It all makes sense in hind sight.

While it’s easy to poke fun of Thais (or any Asian culture) when they attempt to speak English, the feeling is mutual for them with our feeble attempts. The most important thing is the ability to laugh at oneself. “Mai pen rai,” Thai people say. “It’s all good.”

Author: Kevin Cook

I want to inspire you to pursue your own dream of traveling and/or living overseas!

17 Comments

  1. Very interesting analysis of the language barrier. Enjoyed your post.

  2. 🙂

  3. Hi Kevin…! However I believe that the most important factor is the exposure… I basically found that they have very very few exposure to the language. Maybe even the teachers use more Thai than English during English lessons… and I think most of the teachers merely teach without really taking into account of the practical usage of the language.

    Leh, Malaysia 🙂

    • That’s a good point, Leh. In my opinion, Thai english teachers focus too much on textbook-based rote memorization and grammatical breakdowns. Explaining the past participle of a verb isn’t going to make any sense to a kid who can’t count to 20 in English.

      • Yes… I also read somewhere that the English teachers themselves didn’t really expose too much to the language as well because they themselves were grown up in an era without any exposure to the language at all.
        I was chinese educated when I was a child and I hardly can converse in English when I entered secondary… It’s all because of the exposure to the language when I was in secondary school, and now I’m able to speak the language at ease. 🙂 Also, amusing teachers like you can make a lesson alive! That’s also another very important factor to make a language class lively! 🙂

        Leh

  4. The best way to improve English skills in Thailand is let native speaker teach them. A few english teacher can speak english fluently. You can prove it.
    I’m not good in English but i know why. I try to learn more and more but no chance to speak with foreigner. Can’t practice with myself because we don’t know what is exactly right or wrong. If you have some suggestion can post here i will tell my friend take a look for improving themselve. 😛

    I’m Thai people.

    • The best way to improve English skills is first, drive away the native speakers from Thailand. Over the past 15 – 20 years here, they have spoiled the language. I am a NNES teaching at Thailand. I find that there’s a lot demand for NES and they take good advantage. They don’t teach grammar, only conversation like How are you? I am so so. How do you do? Ans, How do you do. Can you justify these answers. In countries where non native English Speakers teach English, the students are much better and brighter. Teaching is a skill. The third class NES here can only add salt to the water.Most of the MNC call centers are in NNES countries.

      • Philip,
        This is a really interesting point. Thanks for sharing. Perhaps this would be worth writing an article about…

        • Yes it is proved here. There are around or more than 228 nations in the world. Only five are considered native English speaking countries. If English could be learnt from only NES speakers I wonder how the sutdents taught by NNES teachers are better? All the pilots in the world are not taught by NES and they communicate around the world fluently and clearly. The average salary of a NES teacher in Thailand is 30000 baht which is 1000 US dollar. It is a fact that the truck drivers in USA are paid more than a 1000 dollar a week. Some schools hires NES teachers without a degree. It is just like asking a Thai truck driver to teach Maths or Science in a Thai school. Teaching is a skill. How come the countries like India Pakistan Sri Lanka Bangladesh Philippines and other Asian countries’ students who are taught English by their local natives are so fluent in English? If we compare or test those students with the students taught by NES teachers, the students of the so called NES cannot score 25 percentage of them. There is a site which shows the percentage of marks scored in Asian countries in IELTS and Thailand stands much behind other Asian countries. So the best way to improve English in Thailand is to have a common board syllabus for the country, Exam in grade 10 and 12 to be conducted by government. Qualified teachers with skill and experience teach English regardless of their nativity.

          • Good comment. I have lived in Thailand for several years now, and work with many affluent Thais who have studied and lived outside of Thailand — mostly in English speaking countries.

            What I have noticed is that most Thais — even those who have lived outside of Thailand — are very insular. Despite having had a tourism industry and many foreign workers for decades, most have barely any experience to none at all interacting and communicating in English (or any other language).

            Unfortunately, there is also an arrogance observed in the Thai native English teachers teaching the exact same mistakes across all levels — from the prestigious schools all the way down to the least prestigious. It is almost as if Thais are learning English with the primary purpose being to look good and communicate in broken English really only to show their domestic audience that they can do so. I have not been to another country (and, I have been to and lived in many) where the entire nation makes the same mistakes.

            Lastly, it is not only the technical aspects of the English language that many Thais struggle with. What I have noticed (even among the top tier of Thais) is that

            a) when they speak Thai, the language is interpretive and relies on the listener to fill in gaps left by the speaker. If you listen to Thais speaking Thai, you can notice many “alai na” or “what” or “khaojai mai? or “do you understand?” etc. This is true across education levels.

            b) So, when Thais speak English, they often struggle to build meaning clearly and explicitly and follow logical flows in doing so. So, even for the Thais who can handle the technical (grammatical, spelling, etc.) aspects of English, they usually still struggle to be direct, and concise and logical rather trying to rely on the listening to fill in many gaps for them, which, for Native English speakers or English speakers from many other (generally non-Asian) languages, is not suitable and difficult to follow.

            Comparatively, the English speakers learning Thai face a similar problem in that we speak very directly which, while being very precise and clear, is usually not culturally preferable for Thais who almost always prefer very indirect, somewhat vague speech which leaves much room for interpretation and follow up.

  5. I’m Thai and I can speak English.

  6. Interesting monkey

  7. Can you speak Thai? Is it perfect ?

  8. Even after decades of time spent trying to teach English and a huge tourism industry that drives much of the Thai economy, the ranking is still very, very low. There are structural problems, obviously.

    EF English Proficiency Index

    VERY HIGH
    PROFICIENCY

    01 Denmark
    02 Netherlands
    03 Sweden
    04 Finland
    05 Norway
    06 Poland
    07 Austria

    HIGH
    PROFICIENCY

    08 Estonia
    09 Belgium
    10 Germany
    11 Slovenia
    12 Malaysia
    13 Singapore
    14 Latvia
    15 Argentina
    16 Romania
    17 Hungary
    18 Switzerland

    MODERATE
    PROFICIENCY

    19 Czech Republic
    20 Spain
    21 Portugal
    22 Slovakia
    23 Dominican Republic
    24 South Korea
    25 India
    26 Japan
    27 Italy
    28 Indonesia
    29 France
    30 Taiwan
    31 Hong Kong

    LOW
    PROFICIENCY

    32 U.A.E.
    33 Vietnam
    34 Peru
    35 Ecuador
    36 Russia
    37 China
    38 Brazil
    39 Mexico
    40 Uruguay
    41 Chile
    42 Colombia
    43 Costa Rica
    44 Ukraine

    VERY LOW
    PROFICIENCY

    45 Jordan
    46 Qatar
    47 Turkey
    48 Thailand
    49 Sri Lanka
    50 Venezuela
    51 Guatemala
    52 Panama
    53 El Salvador
    54 Kazakhstan
    55 Morocco
    56 Egypt
    57 Iran
    58 Kuwait
    59 Saudi Arabia
    60 Algeria
    61 Cambodia
    62 Libya
    63 Iraq

  9. Useful very gives a heads up

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